October 2015 Church & State | People & Events

In advance of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States last month, Americans United advised officials in Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C., to respect separation of church and state during the pope’s time in their respective cities.

In a letter sent August 31 to officials in the three cities as well as federal agencies, Americans United noted that during previous papal visits, government officials have attempted to divert tax money for religious purposes. AU asked the gov­ernment officials to make sure that did not happen during this visit.

“Although the pope is considered a head of state, he is in a unique position because he also leads a major religious group,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United in a media statement. “As a result, government officials must be very careful not to spend taxpayer dollars for any of the pope’s religious activities while he is in the United States.”

Americans United asserted in its letter: “[G]overnment bodies must not provide any aid to a Pope’s religious activities that goes beyond the provision of services – such as police, safety, and security – that are regularly given for comparable public events of a similar size.”

Americans United noted that this has been a problem in the past. Multiple church-state violations arose when Pope John Paul II came to America in 1987.

For example, Dade County, Fla., closed its schools on the day of a papal mass in Miami and may have leased school buses to transport people to the religious service; a 100-foot cross was put up for two weeks on state-owned land in Miami and public employees in the city sold tickets to papal events.

During a visit to Philadelphia by Pope John Paul II in 1979, officials in Philadelphia spent taxpayer money to construct a large platform to serve as an altar for an outdoor mass and rented chairs, a sound system and decorations for it. A federal appeals court later ruled that these expenses were unconstitutional.

Americans United also sent public-records requests to the cities and federal bodies involved in this year’s visit to monitor whether they were complying with constitutional restrictions.

“City and federal officials should take care not to repeat the unconstitutional mistakes that were made during past papal visits,” said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser in a press release. “We’ll be watching them to ensure that they do not do so.”

The letter and records requests were written by Luchenitser and Amer­icans United Legal Fellow John McGinnis.